Tell Me About It: Roughhousing boy may just be awkward, not a bully

Second grade is a little late in the process for this, but it's not unheard of for a rassle or a whack in the back to be a kid's idea of saying hello to people he likes. (iStock)

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: My second-grader is being bullied by a boy in his class, and this has been going on since first grade. It's not bad enough to ruin my son's day or school experience (he loves school) nor is he the only target - this kid bullies a lot of the other children. It's all roughhousing that ranges from uncomfortable to painful for his targets.

We've recently mentioned it to the teacher, but I would also like to empower my naturally diffident and nonassertive son with tools/strategies to deal with bullies himself. Particularly, because (1) this type of bullying is a common if unfortunate element of playground and school life and (2) he needs to have the confidence to stand up for himself.

Do you have any books on this that you would recommend and that would be comprehensible to lower elementary school children, or would teach me to teach him the tools?

Answer: The best I've read on the subject is Best Friends, Worst Enemies by Thompson/O'Neill Grace/Cohen.

It also sounds possible that this "bully" is actually trying to be friends with his classmates but has no idea how. Is he doing this roughhousing in anger? Second grade is a little late in the process for this, but it's not unheard of for a rassle or a whack in the back to be a kid's idea of saying hello to people he likes - if he's not comfortable yet with the words and gestures of friendship.

Of course, if he's roughhousing in anger, then that's something else entirely and the school needs to get on it, fast.

Anyway, read the book, and maybe draw out the teacher a bit more on the other circumstances. The more you understand, the better you can guide your son, since bully-neutralizing can involve a huge range of approaches from full avoidance to full engagement. Once you do know more, I'm a huge fan of role-playing as a way to teach your son to handle tough social situations, even if it feels like a trip to Dork Mountain. (I think using the term Dork Mountain was a trip to Dork Mountain. My poor kids.)

Reader comment: "Bullying" is making a project out of making a particular target's life miserable, for one's own satisfaction. If this kid is rough and pushy with everyone, it sounds like he may be a bit of a clod, but not a true "bully."

Answer: Zackly. That's what I was heading toward with the suggestion that the "bully" might just be socially awkward (and overly physical). While bullying is a significant problem, overusing the "bully" label also is one.

Reader comment: Any chance of inviting the bullying second-grader over for a (supervised) play date? Might give you a lot of helpful information and, possibly, influence.

Answer: Yes, good stuff, I did this three times myself - the first at the suggestion of their teacher, because it never would have occurred to me - and didn't regret any of these play dates, even though the outcome was different for each.

The one caveat: Talk to the teacher more fully first. It's really helpful to know the backstory, versus just plunging in.

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